Sunday, November 3, 2013


Sometimes books find us at the right time, and become part of our ongoing conversations in many ways. This is one of those books. I've talked to NBCTs about Gorski's discussion of equity, and I've shared quotes in conversations about the recent cuts to the SNAP program. This is an important book for all educators to read and think about. It's important for citizens to become informed, not with the narratives of 'my sister's friend was on welfare...My mother knew a woman on welfare who had an iPhone' They do NOT help us educate our students. They do NOT help us assist parents in overcoming the opportunity gaps that keep their children from succeeding.

If we really care about all students' education, we must read and discuss this book. We must shift our own thinking, and look carefully at how we structure our schools and our parent outreach. No longer is is all right to say, 'Well, we had Open House -- those parents just don't care about their children.' We must be honest about our own contributions to the barriers many parents suffer.

"...low income people face innumerable inequities in and out of schools. These inequities regarding access to everything from adequately funded schools to playgrounds to prenatal care have nothing to do with poor people's cultures and everything to do with what Jonathan Kozol called the 'savage inequalities' of schools and society. We, as a society, give low-income youths less access to educational opportunity, healthcare, nutrition, and other goods, and then blame the outcomes of these inequities on their 'culture of poverty.'"

Not an easy read...not a feel-good read. This challenges the reader to look closely and deeply at some assumptions and stereotypes we may bring to our work with kids from low-income families. 

Gorski takes us step-by-step from a shattering of the myth of the 'culture of poverty.' He is careful in his title to not talk about kids OF poverty, but kids IN poverty. Not an accident of word choice...a deliberate choice of a careful practioner.

We as educators must confront our own biases, well-meaning as they may be. We need to develop an new kind of literacy...equity literacy. We must push back against those soft-bigotry statements: Poor parents don't care about education; they're lazy,drug-addicted abusers who can't communicate and obviously care little about their children.

It's important to turn this around. Achievement gaps can be explained by examining OPPORTUNITY gaps...those resources most of us take for granted that poor families don't, prenatal care, dental and working conditions that are safe...recreation opportunities, with money and time and transportation and social services access...affordable childcare...enrichment opportunities...a society that validates our efforts. Poor families, because they may be working two or three low-paying jobs, with little free time and no disposable cash, do NOT have these opportunities to support their families.

We think of their inabilities as deficits, but we must stop...they are barriers to opportunity. Poor families have just as much resiliency as others when we help dismantle the barriers.

So, how do these gaps affect families' ability to thrive? Preschool, schools with adequate funding and resources such as libraries, shadow education (those ACT prep classes and tutoring and camp activities WE offer our own kids), support services, high expectations, WELL-PAID, CERTIFIED, EXPERIENCED TEACHERS (not 5-week wonders from TFA), higher-order, challenging curricula, the opportunity to include parents fully in their children's education. What are the barriers? TIME and TRANSPORTATIOM, a LIVING WAGE, to name a few.

Gorski lists the ineffective practices in schools: cutting arts and music programs, direct, scripted, instruction, tracking of students, and charter schools.

He tells us what works: Arts programs, high expectations, higher-order, student-centered pedagogies, movement and PE, relevancy in the schools, teaching everyone about biases, analyzing materials for bias, and my favorite: LITERACY ENJOYMENT!! Woohoo!

"The most powerful strategy is to create cultures that promote reading enjoyment...literacy instruction should not focus solely on reading or writing mechanics. More to the point, tho, it means that we ought to find ways to foster in students excitement about reading and writing even when they respond reluctantly at first… 1. Institute literature circles 2. Provide reading material options that align with stated interest of students 3. Use a variety of media…that engage students actively and interactively 4. Incorporate drama into literacy instructions."

I love the chapter entitled 'THE MOTHER OF ALL STRATEGIES" and I concur...building relationships IS the mother of all. Relationships with our students and relationships with their parents. It's not enough to set up conference times and then smugly say, 'well, we offered time for these parents to come to school. They must not be interested.' That's the same as the teacher who says, 'Well, I taught it, the students didn't get it.' I hate both of these messages...they point back to that deficit mindset. We need to ask ourselves how hard we tried...did we take into consideration work schedules, transportation, childcare? Did we really do everything we could to invite parents who may have negative feelings about schools? Did we truly show our value for them and their children? Were we creative in our problem solving, or did we simply shrug and blame the parents?

I've had a couple of conversations with professionals about 'those parents' who don't care...and I'm learning to offer alternative ways of thinking about the facts in a gentle push back. Which leads to the last chapter: SPHERES OF INFLUENCE...what IS my sphere? What can I do?

He suggests we do our job with sensitivity and respect...that is our sphere, but he says, "...when we do anything, anything at all, to push back against the defunding of schools or the underfunding of education mandates and to resist the imposition of corporate-style accountability and high-stakes testing, we are also advocating, whether we know it or not, for low-income students. Of course, we also are self-advocating, which is an added bonus."

He offers advocacy goals: preschool, community agency access, smaller classes, ongoing PD for teachers, access to healthcare, PE, arts and music. Surely every one of us could choose ONE of these issues to become advocates for.

Important book...I read it twice, once highlighting, the second, collecting all those quotes for reference later. Would make great reading for our legislators who continue to chip away at the few support systems poor families have.

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